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Which Astronomy Books are the Best?


Last updated 12/31/2020 at 12:07am

In his book, Rey takes the "classical" constellations and creates new – and some might say easier – outlines for beginning stargazers.

One of the most common questions I hear around the holiday gift-giving season is this: "Which is the best book to buy for a beginning stargazer?"

I wish it were that easy, but the fact is I just have no answer! Unfortunately, there is no one "best" book, any more than there's a "best" car, computer or brand of root beer. So much depends on your previous knowledge and experience, age, budget and preferences about what kind of book works for you. Instead, let me suggest that you visit your local library or bookstore, sit on the floor in the astronomy section, and begin flipping through all the books that capture your eye. That's what I would do. Whether you're an experienced astronomer or just a beginner, there are a few classics that should be on the shelves of every stargazer.

Perhaps the book I'd recommend more than any other isn't even an astronomy book, but a delightfully written autobiography of one of the great amateur astronomers of the 20th century. And if you asked me which book I'd choose for spending the rest of my life on an isolated desert isle, this is the one I'd pack.

"Starlight Nights: The Adventures of a Stargazer" by Leslie C. Peltier captures the excitement and romance of stargazing like no other book I've ever read. When folks ask why anyone would take up a hobby such as astronomy, I always point them toward this book. I try to read it once a year or so, just to remind myself why I fell in love with the subject, and I wind up falling in love with it all over again.

For help in locating outlines of the constellations, you might try "The Stars," a classic book by H.A. Rey. In it, Rey takes the "classical" constellations and creates new – and some might say easier – outlines for beginning stargazers. Keep in mind, of course, that it still requires quite an imagination! I've found that it's often helpful just to make up your own stellar figures.

Much more in-depth is a three-volume set titled "Burnham's Celestial Handbook," a remarkable reference work compiled by Robert Burnham Jr. If you've ever pondered the history and cultural influences of the stars and constellations, you will easily lose yourself in this wonderful set. In fact, many of the historical tidbits I write for this column I discovered in Burnham's rich tome.

If you're interested in some unconventional ideas that people believe about the universe, check out Philip C. Plait's "Bad Astronomy: Misconceptions and Misuses Revealed, From Astrology to the Moon Landing 'Hoax.'" And, believe me, there's no shortage of these.

To keep up with current astronomical discoveries and other amateur activities around the world, check out the two major monthly periodicals. While they both cover the same material, Sky & Telescope aims slightly toward the more technically oriented amateur, with more information on research projects, telescope building, computer and photographic hardware and software, etc., and Astronomy magazine handles more of the beauty and mystery of the cosmos. Just as with books, I recommend you look over a few issues at your local library or bookstore before subscribing.

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